“I love boxing. I love hitting people. I love hurting people.”
So says Mike ‘ The Rebel ‘ Perez in a recent promotional video for his World Boxing Super Series quarter final bout against unbeaten Latvian power-puncher Mairis Briedis, which goes down tomorrow night. It’s a statement to incite the fury of the latest breed of pseudo-intellectual anti-boxing activists, the gender-fluid, trigger-warning brigade, whose lives are built on avoidance of physical activity and for whom the spectacle of two bare-chested men hitting each other represents nothing more than an archaic form of toxic masculinity, poisonous to our youth.
But scratch beneath the pre-hype quotes and Perez’s professional backstory is one of intrigue.This is a man who consistently struggled with motivation and weight issues while breaking into the top ten of the heavyweight division. As less talented boxers with the backing of promotional muscle generally swerved him, periods of inactivity ensued and no doubt maximised those tendencies for procrastination. In professional boxing being good enough is never a guarantee for opportunity, never mind success. Perez need only cast a rueful eye on the career of his fellow Cuban prodigy, Guillermo Rigondeaux, to seek proof of the difficulties abstract fistic talents consistently encounter in the unregulated business of pro boxing.
A 2013 bout with Magomed Abdulsalomov ended in tragedy and an under-cooked Perez was back in the ring just ten weeks later to draw with tough but limited Carlos Takam before emerging half fit in New York to meet Byrant Jennings in a world title eliminator. Perez cruised through the first half of the contest, disdainfully out-boxing the Philadelphian, before gassing and losing a decision.
It was a frustrating outcome for a hithertho frustrating career. Perez at times had a Tysonesque look and style that usually faded away due to poor preparation.The psychological horrors from the Abdusalomov tragedy only he can speak of with truth, but in recent interviews Perez has alluded to a burgeoning alcohol problem that followed him into the squared circle in Russia against a version of Alexander Povetkin who appeared to be eating three square meals a day of genetically modified stallion testosterone. The Russian, looking like a cross between a champion power-lifter and an Olympic sprinter, knocked Perez out early and it seemed that this story was coming to a familiar and sad end.
Yet the adopted Irish-Cuban wrecking ball has re-merged in recent months trimmed down to cruiserweight and anxious to rebuild his boxing career. The ears of boxing aficionados pricked up as Perez has been a magnet for that hoary old chestnut regarding what might be achieved if the talent was coupled with some discipline, if the fighter embraced the grind and shut out the demons. Humans have a tremendous talent for self-flagellation but every now and then some of us manage to identify, conquer, and overcome and it is a story such as that of Mike Perez that captures the interest of anyone with a love for the underdog.
Tomorrow night, Perez, a late addition and the wildcard of the cruiserweight World Boxing Super Series, has a chance to begin a new chapter, to take his career to new heights. The circumstances are not in his favour of course; that lack of promotional muscle again means the advantages lie with his Latvian opponent who fights in front of a partisan crowd. Not for the first time in his career ‘The Rebel’ finds all the odds stacked against him. Add inactivity and naturally he is not the bookmakers’ favourite. But if the judges are clean and the opponent free of artificial enhancement, the Cuban pit-bull just might upset the odds and serve notice to the rest of the tournament entrants. Either way, the bet here is he gives us a performance to remember. — Gary Elbert